At long last, Malaysia seal AFC Asian Cup return after 15-year absence

Syafiq Ahmad produced a captain's display for Malaysia on Tuesday, leading by the front and scoring the third goal in a 4-1 win over Bangladesh that secured Harimau Malaya's qualification for AFC Asian Cup 2023. Football Association of Malaysia

Malaysia will return to the AFC Asian Cup next year for the first time since 2007, after securing their qualification on Tuesday with a 4-1 win over Bangladesh at Bukit Jalil National Stadium in Kuala Lumpur.

Heading into the tie knowing that a win would be enough to guarantee a first Asian Cup appearance since they co-hosted the tournament 15 years ago, Harimau Malaya duly took the lead after 16 minutes through a Safawi Rasid penalty -- after Matthew Davies had been fouled inside the area.

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But a minute after the half-hour mark, Bangladesh pulled level when a long throw into the area was flicked on by Rakib Hossain and found Mohammad Ibrahim, who had ghosted into a dangerous area completely unmarked to dispatch a header past Ahmad Syihan Hazmi.

Just as it looked as though the weight of expectations might be getting to Malaysia, Dion Cools made amends for spurning an excellent opportunity moments before in the 38th minute, receiving possession from a Shahrul Saad layoff and firing away a left-footed effort that squirmed under the body of Anisur Rahman and it at the near post.

It was a costly error from Rahman and one that he did not deserve, considering he had previously made two superb reflex saves from Safawi and Syafiq Ahmad to prevent Bangladesh from falling further behind.

Nonetheless, just two minutes after the restart, there was to be no denying the Malaysians from adding a third when a corner was initially taken short and curiously worked all the way back to near the halfway line before Faisal Abdul Halim floated an inch-perfect pass onto the head of Syafiq, who deftly flicked a backward header into the top corner.

At this stage, the hosts were firmly in control of proceedings and rarely looked in danger of relinquishing control of the contest, even if Syafiq had another strike incorrectly ruled out for offside.

And with 17 minutes left on the clock, Harimau Malaya went on to seal qualification after two substitutes combined to devastating effect, with Akhyar Rashid breaking free down the right and laying a pass on a platter to leave Darren Lok with a simple tap-in at the far post.

The victory -- coupled with Saturday's 3-1 triumph over Turkmenistan -- sealed a second-place finish behind Bahrain in Group E, with their six-point haul enough to guarantee them progress as one of the five best runners-up in the third and final round of qualifiers.

Considering the Malaysians' most-recent Asian Cup appearance came by virtue of being the co-hosts, Tuesday's achievement also marks the first time they have qualified for the continent's premier tournament on merit since 1980.